Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Happy New Year, All

It's Tuesday afternoon, December 30th, and I am blogging from the public library in Motueka, South Island, where we are provisioning up for our Abel Tasman tramp. It begins tomorrow morning and will last five days, 50-some km of beach, cove, and a couple tidal crossings (the trail goes under at high tide). When we get to the end, January 4, we'll take the sea taxi back to the beginning where we are parking the Bongo. So, our next posting will be on or about January 4.

In the meantime, Happy New Year to all. We'll be in a hut somewhere along the Kaiteriteri coast, eating freeze-dried backpacker food, hopefully warm but neither sun-burned nor mosquito-eaten, and enjoying yet another adventure.

First Day on South Island

One Ring to Rule Them All... Our morning project, having debarked safely at Picton after a smooth voyage was swapping out campervans. The green Bongo's AC went out, could not be repaired, so they swapped us a black one. The swap-out took most of the morning, but at least afforded the opportunity to inventory stuff. We then drove off, stopping in beautiful Nelson, where Vicki visited the jeweler/goldsmith who made the One Ring. For lunch, we stopped at the Mussel Pot, in Havelock, the green shell mussel capital of the world. It was a great green mussel theme-restaurant. I was in heaven. We camped at the Bethany campground in Maiateriteri, near the start of the Abel Tasman. And finally got some sleep.

Sunrise on Cook Strait

New Improved Millennium Bongo

Note Roof Decor

Day in Wellington, Night at Sea

Our day in Wellington was good, several hours at Te Papa, the wonderful still new and technologically up-to-date national museum on the harbor; another LOTR site on Mt. Victoria; strolling the downtown, great used bookstores; then a dinner and a movie (Twilight; Vicki's idea). After the movie we walked back to the Waterloo Quay to catch our ferry to the South Island. This was the Santa Regina, departing Wellington Harbor at 3AM, arriving at Picton at 6:30. Very little sleep for either of us.

Part of Te Papa and the Wellington Harbor

I love museums with quirky collections...a corrugated car

The Good Ship Santa Regina

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Folfing at Orthanc, in Isengard

Today we did a day tour with Wellington Movie Tours, seeing the various Wellington and Hutt River LOTR sites...Isengard, Rivendell, the shortcut to the mushrooms, the Weta Cave, Peter Jackson's studio complexes, and on and on, perhaps two dozen in all. Moving from site to site, we saw clips aboard the bus and then also via laptop clips in the field so you could see exactly how the site was done, filmed, etc. It was a great tour, highly recommended, and affordable too.

We're spending another day in Wellington, then ferrying late tonight to the South Island and Tuesday the first of our four NZ tramps, the Abel Tasman beach tramp, five days. We won't be posting much next week.

Boxing Day

Boxing Day is the day after Christmas, a legal holiday in NZ. We have asked perhaps a dozen Kiwis what it is that Boxing Day celebrates, and no one has even the slightest idea, not even a conjecture. (The Boxer Rebellion was it?). The whole nation remains en holiday, nonetheless, most everything closed, as on Xmas day. Few if any post-Xmas sales here, at least in the small towns. We thought the Thai and Nepalese were holiday-happy!

After breakfast at the campsite, we walked for an hour or so through the beach-side forest at Waitarere, more woodland scenes from LOTR, particularly TTT and ROTK. Waiterere is a government-owned but privately-managed forest. We have passed many such forests in our travels here—they are easily identified, commercially-viable trees, tall, straight, not the local weird stuff; in some cases immense forests with little undergrowth. Ideal for filming certain kinds of woodland scenes involving short people. The clear-cuts are immense too, the largest I have ever seen, including Oregon. We then drove on in the direction of Wellington. “Wellywood” as some now call it..

The Otaki Gorge of the River Hutt is said to be a beautiful place, up in the southern mountains, another place where a variety of LOTR scenes were shot, particularly from FOTR, so we cut off the main road there. It is an 18k drive, mostly on unsealed (gravel) one-lane road above the gorge. Initially, we thought we'd be the only people back that far from the beach, but, no, there were more than a hundred vehicles coming and going and parking at the tramp sites, the picnic sites, the campground sites,the fishing sites, the caretaker sites, etc. Boxing Day, mate. We barely saw the river and gorge, but the foliage en route, especially the green tunnel, was extraordinary.

From Otaki, actually from Levin, the northbound highway was bumper-to-bumper, Wellingtonians escaping to the northwestern beaches for the long holiday. Fortunately, the southbound lane was fairly open and free, and thus, after 40km or so, we entered gorgeous Wellington, the capital, on a bright and clear but not even warm afternoon. We are at the Apollo Motor Lodge, smack downtown, a few blocks from Te Papa, the national museum. Dinner is store-bought New World roast chicken with salad and Xmas pudding and cream custard. Yum. Mussels from the pictured bin tomorrow night. I am not sure what Vicki will have.

Today we did a day tour with Wellington Movie Tours, seeing the various Wellington and Hutt River LOTR sites...Isengard, Rivendell, the shortcut to the mushrooms, the Weta Cave, Peter Jackson's studio complexes, and on and on, perhaps two dozen in all. Moving from site to site, we saw clips aboard the bus and then also via laptop clips in the field so you could see exactly how the site was done, filmed, etc. It was a great tour, highly recommended, and affordable t

Watch out for Orcs!

Approaching Welllington on the M1

That's 75 cents a pound for these puppies!

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Kiwi Christmas

Merry Christmas to all from Whakapapa!

Our Christmas began with sleeping in (indoors, no less), exchange of modest presents (mostly camping and trekking stuff; “here, give me this for Xmas”), and then a nice cooked English/NZ hotel Xmas breakfast. We skyped with Rebecca and Rachel, with whom we had not talked in some time (nice to hear of them carrying on the traditions), then posted nearly 2 weeks of blogs, packed up and left Whakapapa. Happily, the volcanos of Mordor, I mean, Tongariri National Park, did not erupt nor explode during our visit. See illustration.

It has been a memorable Xmas. As I wrote earlier, it is our first in 40 years by ourselves, no family, extended nor otherwise. Not a trend we want to establish. We are used to warm climate Xmases, being from Miami—white Xmases are still a novelty—but it is a little difficult thinking of Xmas in the summer, which is what it is here. School's just out, the summer holidays are here, and caravans and backpackers are everywhere. Oh well. It's beautiful and festive enough. And the NZ Christmas trees (patutpikawa, or takupakawa, or tapoketa-tapoketa) are something special.

We drove on south and southwest to Tawhai Falls, site of several scenes from The Two Towers, Smeagol's fishing holes, among others. (Did I mention I visited the national trout fishing museum yesterday, near Lake Taupo? quite impressive). Then on further to Ohutu, from which some of the Anduin, the Great River, scenes were shot. OK, it's the Rangitikei, not the Anduin. The gorge through which the Rangitikei river passes is pretty spectacular. The actual site is now a bungy jump, of course, allegedly the highest on the North Island. The site itself was closed, it being Xmas Day, so I did not do the jump. As if.

From there we drove on to Waitarere, near Foxton, on the southwestern beach of the North Island, the Kapiti coast, and have camped at a small private campground. We bypassed Palmerston North, one of Missoula's sister cities. I did take a shot, at least, of the road sign. We have seriously underestimated the North Island and have had to really rush through it. A couple months here would be good. Next time. In some ways, I am glad I have visited this place relatively late in life. Earlier I might well have wanted to come here permanently.

The terrain as we drive is ever changing and ever interesting. After miles of river and hills and mountains, the last score of kilometers were relatively flat agricultural land, and now the giant dunes and beaches and forests emerge again. Dinner, en Bongo, was left-over Xmas fondue.

Christmas Eve in Mordor

From Matamata we drove on further into the center of the island. I have written little so far of the diversity of this place...flora and fauna, geography, culture, and the rest. It really is beyond belief. In the north of the island, you would think you were in England. OK, there are no Norman churches, nor castles, nor hill forts. But there are beautiful small towns, rolling green hills, dotted with woods here and there, and sheep and sheep and more sheep, and also lots of dairy cattle. When you look at the woods more closely, however, you begin to see fern trees, Kauri trees, radial pines, and many other sorts of vegetation that don't belong in England. And although there are no hill forts nor castles, many, many of the hills are terraced. At first, we thought we were looking at something like Mt. Dumbo in Missoula, where the terraces resulted from varying shorelines of glacial lake Missoula. But here the terraced hills are all over the island, some right on the sea. It turns out these are remnants of Maori hill villages, fortifications, ramparts, staircases, and the rest. The extent of the works is more than impressive.

The northern half of the island, such as we saw, was bays and beaches, and harbors and islands, and beautiful green rolling hills and forests. In the interior now, at a place called Whakapapa, we are in the mountainous volcanic zone of the northern island, just west of an enormous caldera/lake. From Matamata west, one is in a seismic zone comparable to Yellowstone, geysers and mudpots, and the like, but all towered over by three snow-capped and active volcanoes. We are at a hotel at the foot of Mt. Ruapehu (about 8,000 feet), which last erupted in 1995. (The largest volcanic explosion in recorded history occurred here in AD 181, creating the giant Lake Taupo.) This afternoon we drove up to the ski area above Whakapapa, where a variety of scenes from LOTR were shot, most notably some of those from Mordor and Emyn Muil. The rain and mist have stayed all day, and only added to the gloomy and forbidding sense of the place.

Family and friends will be relieved to know that, despite the surroundings, we are having as much of a traditional Christmas as is possible. We don't recall ever having a Christmas just the two us, in forty or more years. However, we bought and decorated a small Bongo-sized (artificial) Christmas tree, we have bought and wrapped small presents for each other, and we have even had the traditional Christmas eve fondue dinner, the cheese and chocolate courses anyway.

Vicki adds:

Christmas Eve, 2008—Mordor—Tongariro National Park, New Zealand

Yes, we are in Mordor and this afternoon walked the path that Frodo, Sam and Gollum took out of Emyn Muil and into Mordor. Yesterday, I walked through Bilbo Baggins door at Bag End and took the first step “out the door” and onto The Road Goes Ever On. I had my picture made in front of the Party Tree and collected bark from the oak that grew from the top of Bag End. I am in Hobbit heaven and having a very Merry and unforgettable Christmas. What is missing is sharing it with family and friends. When I bought the cheese for our Christmas Eve fondue today, I wished the deli clerk a Merry Christmas and started crying. But we are having a good Christmas.

We have a tiny tree that was strapped down in the van and tonight we are in a hotel (the highest in New Zealand) on the flanks of a volcano with two more right next door. We have moved the tree onto the tv set and laid out the presents. For dinner we clandestinely made cheese fondue on our one burner stove and then chocolate fondue with fruit. We have also managed to squeeze in watching half of Christmas Vacation on our Ipod and a quick trip to the hot tub. After presents and a hotel breakfast in the morning we head off for Ohakune to see Ithilien and part of the River Anduin. We have a very busy next three days leaving the Shire and visiting Wellington before we take the ferry to the South Island and start our first 5 day trek along the coastline at Abel Tasmin Park.

I am very behind in my blog as we only allowed 2 weeks for the North Island and it needs about 2 months. We have been camping most nights and sightseeing and driving from early in the morning to late in the evening. There has been lots of light since as you know, December 21st is the longest day of the year! Having summer in December takes a lot of getting used to even for native Floridians.

Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas and a wonderful New Year. Vicki


We broke camp at the Russell Top 10 Tuesday morning and drove, at length (we've got to get a proper map), to Matamata, more in the center of the island, and to...Hobbiton. As our friends and family well know, we are Tolkien fans, and part of the attraction of New Zealand was the filming of The Lord of the Rings here in the late 90s. The Hobbiton scenes were filmed on a sheep ranch outside Matamata, now open to the public, for a price, and Tuesday afternoon found us riding the “Gandalf” bus with a couple dozen or so others out to see the site and the remains of Bag End, Bag Shot Row, the Party Tree, and so on. It's all a long story, what remains of the set, what New Line Cinema has permitted, what the owners of the farm can do, but, for Students of the Lore, it was a great and special experience, standing where Gandalf and Bilbo blew smoke rings, where Bilbo made his farewell speech, where Pippin and Merry set off the fireworks, the actual stone steps leading down from the door....

In the evening, we went to Mitia, a Maori village/tribe experience, dinner and a show that was actually very well done. The dinner was traditional, steamed in a below-ground oven, lamb, chicken, sweet potato, etc., and the cultural show and tour informative, respectful, and fun.

In a driving rain, we stayed at yet another Holiday Park. Fortunately, the Bongo does not leak.

Bag End

The Party Tree and Lake at Hobbiton, from Bag End

Sailing the Bay of Islands

Monday we signed onto a “tall ship” cruise on the Bay of Islands. The tall ship was the “Good Ship R. Tucker Thompson,” an 85 foot schooner. The Tucker is a non-profit enterprise, taking tourists like us out into the bay for a day's ride and training young people in the arts of sailing. The captain was assisted by four trainees and a cook, but they all seemed to know what they were doing, keeping the civilians entertained (aaargh...) and involved in the various coiling and coming about, etc. We sailed several miles out into the bay, which indeed has some 200 hundred islands, enjoying scones and tea in the morning, putting in at a cove, walking the beach and climbing a hill, and then returning to the Tucker for a grilled pork and chicken lunch. The day was enhanced by conversations with a Wellington couple who patiently answered all our many questions about Kiwis and New Zealand.

Cape Reingal to Russell Island

Sunday morning we drove from Tapotupotu to Cape Reingal. The latter is situated on a high bluff jutting into the sea, with a 19th century lighthouse overlooking a great 270 degree view. From the lighthouse's signposts, we were able to discern that we were still much closer to the equator than the south pole, something of a disappointment. Oh well, we still have much further south to go.

Our route took us back south, to a couple of stops along the forbidding 90-mile beach and its giant sand dunes, and then past Doubtless Bay, then Kaipapa, and lastly, via another ferry, to Russell Island, a very scenic and comfortable little island community in the Bay of Islands. We dined at Gannett's, where I had an extraordinary mussel chowder (coconut milk, saffron, ginger, lemon-grass, and mussel reduction) and then a plate of steamed mussels. The chef, a German, came out to see who was eating all the mussels.

Northwest Coast

Saturday morning we drove back south through Dargaville and then Te Kopuru. One of our guidebooks had mentioned a home in Te Kopuru which the residents had decorated entirely in buoys and ballcocks, something we had to see. After Dargaville, we visited the great Kauri forests on the coast. The Kauri are enormous trees, mostly all gone, but preserved in a few places, especially in the northwest. We walked to the largest known Kauri, a hugh tree, and got a chance to experience a bit of the “bush.” The rest of the day we spent driving north along beaches and bays, ferrying from Hokiana to Kohukothu, and then further north through Kaitaia, a nice town, and then on to the farther northern shore, the 90-mile beach, toward Cape Reingal, the North Island's northernmost point. We spent the night camped on the beach at Tapotupotu Bay, grilling steaks we had bought in Auckland. The whole northwest coast is very sparsely settled.

To Baily's Beach

Typical Weird New Zealand Tree

Friday, we spent the morning sorting and provisionally arranging the camper. From the Top 10 Friday morning we wandered west to the coast and had lunch on the beach, at Karekare, I think. The northwest coast is largely beach and bay...enormous beaches and bays. The beach sand is sometimes grey (volcanic) and sometime white, mostly white. The bays are estuary-like, connected to rivers. Our route took us around Kaipura Harbor, north, then west, then north again to Dargaville. We spent the night at another Top 10, this time at Baily's Beach. At this point, the beaches start getting enormous, many miles long, many hundreds of feet wide. No settlements or habitations. The tide is only a few feet, and, at low tide, a 4-wheel vehicle (not the Bongo) can drive for miles and miles.

Think Left

Bongo and Me at Tapotupotu

I say we “boldly set forth” because in New Zealand, a Commonwealth sort of place, when driving a car, you sit on the right but drive on the left. The layout of the instruments, controls, etc., is thus reversed, except that the accelerator and brake pedals are in the “right” places. It is difficult to adjust to, although I have done it many times before. This is, however, the first time I have done it in the “upside down” part of the world. I will comment later on the many other aspects of NZ that are confusing to me. When driving now I often fell that my head is going to explode.

Millennium Bongo

On Thursday, after more shopping and the inevitable returns, we packed, checked out of the hotel, and picked up our “camper.” It is really an eight-passenger Mazda van, an older model diesel, with a roof that raises and houses a bed, like the old VW campers. (We owned two). The theory is we will store all our gear below and sleep in the “loft” above, cooking, etc., outside. It might work, except for stealth camping.

This model of Mazda is know as the Mazda Friendee Bongo (sic). Among our previous camping vehicles was a Falcon van, a really nice fully-equipped Class B that we owned when we lived in Dallas. I dubbed it the “Millennium Falcon,” after Han Solo's starship. We will have the Mazda for 6 weeks here or more, worthy of a name, so I have dubbed it the “Millennium Bongo,” or “Bongo,” if you're into the whole brevity thing.

Following slight delays with the rental agency (replacing the Bongo's dead battery), we boldly set forth from Parnell (central Auckland) to a shopping center in the southern suburbs, Silva Park, where, we were told, a store called “The Warehouse” could provide us with various things needed for van camping (table, chairs, ice chest, etc). The Warehouse proved a great disappointment—a Walmart would have been perfect (for once)--but we managed there and at a supermarket where we provisioned up. Then we boldly set forth back across Auckland to the north shore, where, at length, we stayed at a Top 10 Holiday Park, in a very spartan motel room, since the camper was not yet habitable.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

First Days in New Zealand

Our first several days in New Zealand were in Auckland on the North Island. Auckland is the big city, a million and a half—the whole nation is only 4 million—and our hotel, the Auckland City Hotel, is downtown, on Hobson St., 3 blocks north of the main downtown shopping area, Queen St. The hotel is an older 1912 structure, but very recently modernized and re-done. Somehow we got upgraded to a suite, US$46 a night. The Sky City Tower (300m space needle/bungy jump) is a block away. It's hard not to like a country. where sheep outnumber humans 19:1, and there are bungy jumps at every major intersection. Bungy is the original spelling here in NZ, where the sport originated and was perfected. New Zealanders invented adventure tourism, we understand. And bungy-jumping is now considered unremarkable, here.

We cruised the downtown shopping area on Tuesday, getting oriented...lots of interesting stores and shops, including an unusually high number of bookstores and “second-hand” bookstores. The two gear shops, Bivouac and Kathmandu, were having their Christmas sales, so we began such camper-outfitting as was needed immediately. Both Vicki and I also purchased shirts, increasing the size of our wardrobes by a third. We also looked into devices for connecting the laptop to the internet while on the road and camping. They are expensive, and it is unclear they'd work elsewhere (e.g., the US and Europe), so we have decided to rely on free wifi, cyber-cafes and campground computers. Not as convenient, but at least affordable. Dinner was at Mezze, a middle-eastern sort of restaurant, where I began my personal assault on the NZ green lip mussel population. They are even larger, tenderer, tastier, on their home ground (as it were).

On our second full day, we took the ferry to Devonport, a touristy old town on an island in the harbor—it is a huge complicated harbor—and climbed Mt. Victoria, an old volcano remnant, a whole 90m high, for the view. Unfortunately, the view was mostly of the incoming squall. But Auckland has a beautiful skyline, especially from the water, with all the marinas and sails. It is called “The City of Sails.” From what we have read, 1 in every 4 Aucklanders owns a boat. Main street in Devonport had three 2nd-hand bookstores, and the pier had two. Lunch was pulled-pork bar-b-q in a joint owned by a Pennsylvania native.

We ferried back to Auckland and then took the bus to the Auckland Museum, a beautiful old structure set on a hill in the Domain overlooking the city. The Museum is known for its Maori and general Polynesian collections, and also its war memorial collections, including a Zero and an Spitfire (two aiircraft, I submit, that never met in war). The Maori stuff was incredible, in diversity and size and intricacy. The hundred-warrior canoe was especially impressive. Even more impressive was the tree from which it apparently was dug-out. Dinner was at a crepes place a block from the hotel. Auckland appears to have just about every conceivable cuisine.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Sold on Sydney

We had a marvelous 2 and 1/2 days in Sydney. Friday evening we braved the torrential rain and wind to eat at a nearby hamburger joint...real hamburgers, made from—we are sure—cows, something we had been dreaming of for weeks. We are still luxuriating in drinking actual tap water, brushing our teeth in it, not wondering what the next toilet will be like.... And we also are enjoying shopping, being able to evince interest in something without being assaulted by the shopkeeper, his minions and family members, extended relatives, touts, assorted hangers-on, passers-by, et al., all extolling its virtues, its low asking price (generally three times what they'll settle for). But I digress.

Our Saturday was entirely on foot in “downtown” Sydney. The Y Hotel is just west of Hyde Park, and so we set forth through the gorgeous park, noting the huge ficus trees, Norfolk Island pines, and others, statues, fountains, and people on family outings. Also museums, government houses, the Cathedral, and more. Hyde Park took us into The Domain, another park. There we visited the Art Museum of New South Wales, then continued on our way past the Domain and into our major goal for the day, the Royal Botanical Garden.

Sydney is a city of 3 or so million ranged around a long narrow harbor, filled with coves, inlets, harborettes, beaches, cliffs, and so on. There are huge CBDs on both sides of the main harbor, beautiful homes, condos and the rest lining the hills from shore to ridge-top all around. The Royal Botanical Garden is a large affair, many acres, set on a finger of land jutting into the harbor, just east of the main CBD. Judging from the size of the trees, the Garden has been there for a while. We spent a couple hours marveling at species new to us and at familiar species in larger sizes and shapes than we'd ever seen before. The ficuses in particular are huge, a few spreading hundreds of feet across, with large aerial roots that become trunks. Then there were the cacti and succulents. And bamboos, and palms. And camellias. And a fernery with the largest tree ferns I have yet seen. And also fruit bats (grey-headed flying foxes...about the size of a large chicken). And on and on, a tropical plant lover's paradise. We had a light lunch at the Garden's restaurant, then continued to the harbor and Mrs. Macquarrie's Chair, a cliff over-looking the harbor. The center of Sydney harbor is a familiar site—the tall arch of the 1932 bridge, the Opera, the skyscrapers. One takes all this in from the cliffs.

(Aesthetic note: although the Sydney Opera is one of the world's great and distinctive architectural pieces—perhaps on anybody's top 10 list—I personally find it repulsive, qua opera house. Viewing it from different angles (e.g., the harbor ferry) only makes it worse. It reminds me of the Lotus Temple in Delhi).

From the Gardens we crossed to the Circular Quay, headquarters for the harbor ferry system, a beautiful shopping and restaurant area on the water. Next we walked on to the Rocks, the old city, not much gentrified, very atmospheric and proud of its history. We walked back to the Y mostly along George Street, the main drag, fine shops and hotels, stopping for dinner at a small restaurant where Vicki had a salad (also avoided in Asia) and I had fish and chips (fish with no bones!).

On Sunday we bought day-tripper tickets—a pass for all buses, metros, trains, and ferries in the city— $12USD per person. Sydney has it public transportation act together. The metro alone is more extensive than any US city's I know of, except NYC. We took the double-decker metro from the Y's nearby Museum station back to Circular Quay. From there we returned to the Rocks, strolled its wonderful market (it is the only artsy-craftsy market we have ever seen that has NO CRAP; only neat, imaginative, interesting stuff, most of it affordable), and stimulated the local economy. After a scones snack, we boarded the east-bound ferry, taking in the harbor scenery, many stops, the aforementioned coves and inlets, each with a marina and beach, all the way to Watson's Bay. Here we debarked and walked across the Gap, a few hundred feet, to the top of the cliffs overlooking Sydney harbor's narrow entrance, and, The Pacific. The views of the cliffs, the rocks below, the sea, sailboats evidently racing in the distance, were superb. I had not before seen the Pacific, well, the Tasman Sea perhaps, from this particular angle. It was impressive. We walked along the cliffs some distance, then back through the town to the wharf.

One of the Sydney harbor traditions, we were told, was taking the ferry to Watson's Bay and then having a meal at Doyles', a fairly legendary (and very large and popular) seafood restaurant on the water. We had been promising ourselves a real steak (CBA) for some months and had determined that Australia would be the place for it. The menu at Doyles' is almost entirely seafood—but Vicki had the one non-seafood item, a filet (and shared a few bites) while I had the seafood sampler. The surf and turf aspect thus required I sample both red and white Australian wines. The sauvignon blanc was excellent; the shiraz OK.

We re-barked and rode the ferry back west through the harbor, stopping at Luna Park, McMahon St., and Balmain East, a residential area, where we got off and strolled (and scavenged) a bit. Back on the ferry we rode to Darling Harbor, on the other side of the main CBD, and walked nearly its length of shops, restaurants, pubs, museums, the IMAX, and more. Sundown (note alpenglow on the buildings around Darling Harbor) found us taking the last ferry back to Circular Quay, then the metro back to the Y. Two wonderful tourist days.

I am still wondering what the downside of Sydney is. Cruising the harbor as we did, there was no evidence of ugliness. Even the old wharfs have been gentrified, converted to condos, etc. Surely there are poor neighborhoods and poor people. They are not easy for the casual tourist to find, however. Vicki observed that the downside, so far as we are concerned, is the cost of everything. 2U$D for a coke, at 7-11. 3$ for coffee anywhere. Our hotel room, at the YWCA, FCS, was our steepest such yet.

Monday we packed, breakfasted (the Y has great granola), metro'd back to the Rocks to pick up a few purchase items we liked, and then re-visited both the Royal Botanical Garden and the art museum, especially the contemporary Melanesian section. We walked back along the south side of Hyde Park, affording me the opportunity to visit the Cathedral. I now am reading Pillars of the Earth. Plus I really like visiting churches where you don't have to take your shoes off.

Australia. We seriously considered extending our stay here. In our earlier planning, we had decided to short-shrift Australia. New Zealand is more compact, more interesting to us. Australia is vast (and expensive), and the interesting bits, to us, are spread all over a continent. But we are already compiling a list of places to which we might like to return: China, especially western China, the Everest region (the Chinese side), Thailand. And now Australia. When we come back, perhaps we'll rent or buy a camper, and stay a while.

Vicki adds:

December 14—Sydney

We really enjoyed our last days in Bangkok—a very livable city, but too many shopping opportunities. The amount of clothing for sale boggles the imagination—even in a city of 12 million plus tourists, I don't see how they could ever sell half of it.

We had an overnight flight to Sydney and Mark and I each had a row to ourselves. I have been reading Myer's Twilight series and so didn't get much sleep, but I got a lot read. I've finished all four now and I can see why they have been so popular. My ebook has been on the fritz so that has been a disappointment. Hopefully, I can get it working again in New Zealand.

Sydney has been expensive but wonderful. Everything here is about double what costs were in Bangkok. Hotel with breakfast—Bk $46. Syd--$100. Coke $1 vs. $2 etc. However, still much less expensive than a US or European city. Also, many things here are free. We are staying in the YWCA Hotel which is very close in. Yesterday we walked to the harbor and back without too much travail. Sydney has a huge park right on the harbor next to the Opera House. Part of it is the Royal Botanical Garden and also the Art Museum. Both were free and we barely saw 10% of each. Today we bought an all day transport pass and took the metro to the Quay (pronounced key) and then two different ferries around the harbor to other areas. Only $12 each. We had scones and tea at The Rocks (oldest settled area) and visited the weekend market. Fabulous booths of unusual handicrafts. I picked out my two Christmas gifts and a gift for Rebecca. I could have bought dozens of different things.

I am sure Mark will elaborate in his blog on the rest of our day. Australia is definitely on our “return again” list. It would be a great place to rent a camper and travel around for a couple of months. Tomorrow afternoon we are off to Auckland.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Bangkok in Three Days

At the Grand Palace

Another Root-Bound Buddha

Aboard the Royal Raft


Tuesday we spent some morning time in the international Sukhumvit neighborhood and then taxied back to the old city to see what has to be the highlight of anybody's Bangkok tour: the Grand Palace. It is a walled city of sorts—not as sprawling nor as old as the Forbidden City in Beijing—but like the Forbidden City, was originally the royal residence and seat of government. It is as stunning visually as anything we have ever seen. It goes on, acre after acre of golden buildings, temples, residences, stupas, spires, and so on, porcelain and gold and gold-leaf and mirror-mosaic everywhere. The focal point is perhaps the “emerald Buddha,” and, certainly, its golden temple. The Buddha is not emerald (actually, it's jade), and is less than life-size, but it has much to do with national pride and history. In an important seasonal (winter, rainy, summer) ritual, the King himself changes the Buddha's attire, which is solid gold, of course. Sort of like the Mannequin Pis in Brussels, Vicki observed. The whole area is surrounded by arcades with hundreds of murals, drenched as it were in gold-leaf, depicting the Ramayana (the Thai version). Just when you think it can't get any more awesome, it does. We have seen some pretty great things, on this trip and earlier trips, but I can't recall anything that kept me wowing as long or as consistently. Photos can't do it justice.

We had lunch at a great little Thai hole-in-the-wall restaurant in the neighborhood and then walked back to Wat Pho, which we had seen at length on Monday (also Monday the Marble Buddha Temple, which I neglected to mention). Everyone says if you're going to have one Thai massage in Thailand, have it at the national massage school at Wat Pho. Vicki, who has had several Thai massages, had one more at Wat Pho. (I refuse to pay people to hurt me; read H. L. Mencken's essay on chiropractors for deeper insight).

Wednesday we joined a small day tour to nearby Ayuthaya, the capital of Siam from 1350 to 1767, when the Burmese captured and razed it. Neither the scale nor the level of construction (mostly brick, not stone) compare with the sites in Cambodia, but Ayuthaya must have been fairly impressive in its day. The Burmese evidently used the chedi and other monuments for artillery target practice. In visiting the variety of ruins, temples and monuments, one has to use considerable imagination.

On the way to Ayuthaya, we stopped for an hour or so at the royal summer palace. It is a sort of Thai Epcot, a variety of mostly European buildings, intended in part to educate 19th and early 20th century Thais in the ways of the outside world. Thailand was one of very few places in this part of the world that was never colonized. Thais are justifiably proud of this. Their king in these times, Rama V (of Rodgers and Hammerstein fame), was an especially skillful leader, I surmise, and is particularly revered. The highlight of the summer palace for us was the Royal Raft (a houseboat), tied up inconspicuously on the canal...thatched roof, but marble bath, five rooms of beautiful Victorian furniture, a hoot!

In Ayuthaya, we also visited yet another temple famed for its giant golden Buddha. About this time Vicki began singing (softly) “Here a wat, there a wat, everywhere a wat....” Oh, yes, a wat is a temple, and Thailand is said to have about 30,000 of them, an estimate clearly on the low side, we believe. Our return from Ayuthaya was a late lunch cruise (another!) down the Mae Nam Chao Phraya back into downtown Bangkok, viewing all the river-born commerce and tourism, as well as some pretty nice boats and houses...and a number of temples.

Somehow, we felt the day needed more excitement, and fewer temples, so we spent a few hours in the evening strolling and eating in Patpong, the once-infamous-now-mostly-touristy red-light district. At the night-market I bought myself a really cool Mt. Blanc pen that actually writes.

Thursday we spent the morning packing and checking out of the hotel, and then we toured the Dusit area, stopping by the Throne Hall, touring the Vimanmek Teak Mansion, a former royal residence, the world's largest teak structure, and, my personal favorite, the Royal Elephant Museum. (No rides, unfortunately). Toss in the Jim Thomspon House later in the afternoon, and you will appreciate that we saw a lot of teak this day. I did enjoy the gardens at the Thompson House, and the artwork.

We spent the early evening exploring and dining at MBK, one of Bangkok's colossal shopping malls. The food court on the fifth floor surpassed any such thing we have ever seen. (OK, we're from Montana, and the food court at Southgate Mall in Missoula would not impress many people). Great, reasonably-priced food from just about every cuisine there is, prepared to order as you watch. We both had our final Thai dishes there.

We taxied to Suvarnabhumi about 9 PM and cruised the duty-free shops, buying nothing, till our Thai Air flight to Sydney left, at midnight. It was only about 1/3 full. This normally would be the high season in Thailand, but tourism is already down by about 50%, the papers say, a result of the world economy, in part, but mostly a result of the airport occupations/closures two weeks ago. We both had room, a whole row each, to stretch out and sleep some on the 9 hour flight. Disappointingly, there was no ceremony about crossing the equator. It was a red-eye flight, of course, and I am sure the pilot was the only person awake (I hope) when we crossed over. We arrived in Sydney in the afternoon, got to our hotel, the Y at Hyde Park (as in YWCA), and promptly crashed. It has poured rain, in torrents, all day and night here. I will look for the Southern Cross tomorrow night if it clears.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Back to Bangkok

Sunday we flew back to Bangkok from Siem Reap. (That's a picture of the West Baray (see December 6) from the air). We even landed at the once Forbidden Airport of Suvarnabhumi. We had considered trying to fly from Phnom Penh to Sydney, our next major stop, but Bangkok is of far greater interest and the hassle of making flight changes seemed hardly worth it. So we are in Bangkok. Strolling and shopping in the area around our hotel (the PJ Watergate, in Pratun), you would not guess this place is in the midst of political turmoil and crisis. The PM has been deposed by the courts, the King failed to address the nation on his (81st) birthday (first time ever; sore throat), and also failed to reconvene the parliament to form a new government; and so on. We are hoping they can keep the lid on till midnight Thursday, when we jet away beneath the southern cross. In the meantime, the Thai are eminently likable people, and Bangkok one of the world's eminently interesting places.

Monday we did a morning tour of temples (part of the hotel deal), most notably the enormous reclining Buddha (46 meters of gold leaf) and a variety of other interesting sites at Wat Pho; and also a drive around the old town and the government district. Wat Pho was a treat with its great variety of monuments, artifacts, and institutions (e.g., the original official Thai massage school). In the afternoon we shopped and window-shopped the huge shopping district our hotel is in, most notably the giant electronics center at Pantip Plaza...five floors of all things digital, including some pretty interesting deals. The Asus 900 I am typing on was $560 in the US last July. It, or rather its successor model, was $285 at Pantip.

Vicki adds:

December 7—Bangkok, Thailand

We made it here with no problems and were able to book a reasonably priced hotel in central Bangkok from the tour desk at the airport. It certainly isn't a 5 star, but so far clean and quiet with tv, fridge, and even a nice bathtub for only $46 with breakfast and taxes. It is a few blocks to the skytram but only 1 block to McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Yes, we will eat lots of the wonderful Thai food, but tonight we had KFC, which tasted exactly right. When everything is so different and everyday an adventure, you have no idea how important a taste of home can be! My arm is considerably better—still achy, but I am not taking double pain meds every four hours to get through the day. That means I can answer email again and would really like to hear from any of my friends and relatives willing to write. Take pity on a woman who has had no one to talk to for 14 weeks but her husband!

By the way, I promised to comment on the practical from time to time. One of the most important things away from home is the toilet or lack there of. As you know, Nepal was awful. It has been interesting that in India, Thailand, and Cambodia all the facilities for tourists have been Western toilets—no squatters, but they have all had hose and spray attachments next to them attached to the wall—exactly the type that we use to rinse dishes with at the kitchen sink. Of course Japan has the best in the world—wash and dry with warm water and air, freshener, and even sound effects to cover up any bodily noises you don't want to inflict on the neighboring stall occupant. And all that was just at the airport! When Mark and I win the lottery, a Japanese loo will be a definite purchase.

I also did a recent tally of our expenditures and so far we are staying within our budget—except spending more on gifts than I thought. We divided our budget into one part for Asia where costs are relatively low and one part for Australia, New Zealand, and Hawaii, where costs are much higher. Once we get to New Zealand I will run the final figures on the Asia part. Mark and I were just talking today about how if we wanted to come back, we could travel so much more cheaply the second time around. This time we have been willing to spend more in order to avoid uncertainty since we have never traveled in Asia before and really never done the hotel type thing either. (We still think camping is by far the best way—just not available in Asia at all.) Also we wouldn't be going back to India and that ended up costing the most per day as traveling independently there is for the young or the crazy.

Another Day, Another Cruise

Saturday was a great tour day, just a half day with Mao and our driver, but superb nonetheless. Despite lukewarm recommendations from the guidebooks, we drove to Boeung Tonle Sap, a lake about 10 miles from Siem Reap. It is a remarkable lake, one of Asia's largest. In the dry season, it covers about 3,000 square kilometers. But it in the wet season, it swells to 5 times that size. How it does this is the remarkable part. The lake is on the Tonle Sap river, one of the Mekong River's many, many tributaries. With the spring run-off in the Himalayas, a thousand miles or more away, and then the monsoon, the Mekong rises so much that water is forced back up the Tonle Sap, swelling the lake to 15,000 square kilometers. So the Tonle Sap river runs “downstream” half the year and “upstream” the other half. The lake itself is said to provide half the fish consumed by Cambodians.

The hydrologic facet is one reason to see the lake. The other is the floating villages that inhabit it year-round, moving with the water levels and fishing prospects. We rode a long-tail boat well out into the lake proper, beyond Chong Khneas, and got to see such village life up-close, at least briefly. In addition to the hundreds of fishing/residential boats moored among the vegetation, somewhat reminiscent of Florida mangroves, there are also floating general stores, repair shops, restaurants, saloons, schools, churches, police stations, a gym, clinic, and on and on. An entire village, and not a small one. Mao said 14,000 people live on the lake year-round, 4,000 of them Vietnamese. Over-fishing has become a serious problem.

A short drive on the Phnom Penh highway took us to the so-called Roulos group, a cluster of three temple sites that were the first instances of Khmer capital-building, all 9th century. The largest of these is Bakong, where the mountain-temple style of the next 400 years was first attempted on a large scale. Preah Koh is a short distance away, more brick than stone, but nevertheless impressive. The third Roulos site is Lolei, mostly brick, and far more ruined, but still with good carvings on the lintels. Lolei is significant in that it was set in the first baray, and thus was the first island temple here. The Roulos group is a bit off the tour-bus-beaten track, and so we had all three sites virtually to ourselves.

We spent the afternoon by the Angkor Le Meridien's pool and spa complex, sipping cocoanut milkshakes and tanning ever so slightly—this is what you are required to do at 5 star hotels—and then took a tuk-tuk to the old market downtown. There we strolled and shopped, gawking at the meat and fish and vegetables (“Cambodians eat everything” Mao had informed us), stimulating the local economy modestly, and then had dinner at the Angkor Palm, a seven-dish Cambodian sampler for me, and spare ribs for Vicki.

Further culinary note: tamarinds. At Moore Park, in 1950s Miami, near where my family lived, there was a tamarind tree. My father and I used to walk in the park, and he introduced me to this sweet and very sour shelled, bean-like fruit. I would see them in supermarkets occasionally when we lived in Columbus in the 1970s, but not in the last 20 years or more (and certainly not in Montana!). Tamarinds are native to SE Asia, and an ingredient in Thai cooking especially, and I saw several tamarind trees among the Khmer ruins the past few days. Tamarinds were all over the old market in Siem Reap, and so I bought a dollar's worth. Well, it was probably a nickel's worth, but who's going to bargain when re-connecting with his inner Floridian child of the past? Alas, the tamarinds I bought were not nearly so sour as I'd had in the past. You can't go back.

Further note: vegetation. Many, if not most, of the more interesting and exotic plants ones sees in Florida—and with which I grew up—come from SE Asia, where they are far larger and more prevalent. Every plant I look at here, from cacti and calamandons and hibiscus and orchids to gigantic gum trees and more, evokes memories. Hedges of ming aralias I have seen also evoke memories of the dozens of these fragile plants I have killed, regrettably, over the years, trying to make them thrive in places like Columbus and Dallas and Missoula. And then there are my favorite rhapis palms, everywhere, all the way from northern China to here...rhapis palm trees! My last two potted rhapis palms I left in the care of The University of Montana student center, which has an incredibly large and diverse tropical atrium. I hope to visit them again some day.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Khmer Sites, II

We visited half a dozen or so more temples and other sites today...Baksei Chamkrong, Banteay Kdie, Banteay Srey, East Mebon, Neak Pean, Pre Rup, Preah Khan, Ta Keo, Ta Prohm, and Ta Som. The manner and varieties of construction are becoming familiar, as are the representational styles, subjects, and methods. Our guide, Mao (I swear I am not making this up), a 32-year-old former school teacher, is giving us the history of every scene and depiction. He is Buddhist but is quite knowledgeable about Hinduism as well (but seemed unimpressed that we had visited the Brahma Temple in Pushkar; oh well). The Khmer wavered between Hinduism and Buddhism for several centuries (each eradicating all traces of the competition and fighting off the Muslims when not otherwise engaged...isn't religion great?!) until Buddhism finally won out. The country is currently about 85% Buddhist, Mao says. Tourists in the monks' saffron and orange robes are all about, and it's not unusual to see a saffron robe on a motor scooter.

Among the sites, our favorite by far was Ta Prohm, originally a gigantic 13th century Buddhist monastery. The government has deliberately and wisely left it in a semi-over-grown-jungle state. We visited in the later afternoon, when the light was perfect, and the effect was magical. (The closure of the Bangkok airports has kept the number of tourists well down; there were fewer than a hundred of us at Angkor Wat yesterday). At Ta Prohm, the enormous trees are nearly as old as the ruins, and their roots have spread throughout and within the ancient sites. (See illustration). I suppose part of the magic is imagining you are seeing what the European “discoverers” might have see 150 years ago. But it is still magical.

Today's sites ranged from the 9th to the 13th centuries. It is interesting to recall what was going on in Europe in the 9th century and what was being built. Not much and damn little that has survived. I recall a 10th century abbey in France, Tournis, I think, where the stone construction was primitive, transparent, and unadorned...near the confluence of the three great rivers of Burgundy, the Rhone, the Saone, and the Beaujolais. ;-). (I guess I missed the first 2008 Beaujolais, a pity).

One of the tourist treats here is a helium balloon and gondola on a cable that ascends a few hundred feet to give a view of the countryside as well as the major sites like Angkor Wat. Vicki has always wanted to do a balloon ride, but has never been willing to risk the uncertainty (where will we land? when?) nor the hundred(s) of bucks required. Nor have I. But today, between the AM and the PM temples, we did the balloon ride, 15US$ each, up and down, getting a great view of Angkor Wat, Phnom Bakheng, and, especially, the West Baray. The Khmer were builders not only of great cities and temples but also of reservoirs. The major sites all have (or had) enormous moats, miles around, partly defensive in purpose. The West Baray is a perfectly rectangular 10 square km 12th century artificial lake, west of Angkor Thom, that provided for irrigation supporting three rice harvests a year in those times. It continues to irrigate the land around Siem Reap.

Cambodians.... Our guide, Mao, is 32 and our driver is perhaps 40, an old man. One sees very, very few people of greater age here. They have all been killed in the wars that have ravaged this land, all during our lifetimes. Fear of land-mines is everywhere. The last in this region were removed in 2004. Cambodia still imports much of its produce from Thailand: land is not tilled for fear of the mines. At every historic site there is an ensemble of legless men, playing traditional music, asking for donations for land-mine victims. The Cambodians we have met in three days appear to be kind and gentle people, honest and generous. What they have been through, for generations, is unimaginable in our world.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Siem Reap, Angkor Thom, and Angkor Wat

We hired a guide and driver and car to show us around here and will take at least a couple days to see the main sites. Today we did much of Angkor Thom, the 12th century Khmer capital, including the Terrace of the Leper King, Phimeanakas, Baphulon, and Bayon. Later in the day we toured Angkor Wat itself. All these sites are monumental and range from the 11th through 13th centuries, built upon laterite and then faced with sandstone, every inch of which is intricately carved in bas relief and other kinds of representation. Both Hinduism and Buddhism are represented, as well as much of Khmer history to that point. Yes, these are the extensive and enormous jungle ruins that were not known to westerners until the mid-19th century. Later in the afternoon we ascended the hill to the late 9th century Phnom Bakheng for its views of Angkor Wat. This evening we went into town for a Cambodian buffet and cultural program, dancing and music. Internet is very expensive at this Sheraton property, so posts from here will be brief!

Vicki adds:

December 6, 2008—Siem Reap, Cambodia

Obviously we made it out of Thailand—in fact, on the day the demonstrators finally left the airport. We flew through the alternative set up outside of Bangkok and it was a zoo. However, Cambodia has been a delight. We are using our Starpoints from our credit card to stay at a 5 star hotel. I really like the lap of luxury! In Asia we can stay for 25-35% of the points that would be needed for a hotel in the US. This will be the end over here since both Sydney and Auckland want way too many points for a hotel stay. We had a car and driver with guide for 2 ½ days to see the many temples and also a trip to the floating village. Though it has been 90 every day, the ruins have been terrific. Mark is describing them in detail in his blog.

Tomorrow we fly back to Bangkok and hope we can leave late Thursday night for Sydney without more demonstrations getting in the way. We considered just trying to go out through Cambodia but the things we really wanted to see were in Bangkok and not here. We have had two very good Khmer meals—however, they tend to be heavy on bananas—at the buffet the other night there were at least 9 different preparations.

So off to Bangkok.